House of the Dragon – Initial Impressions

Well crap, I guess I’m just a mark for this stuff, aren’t I? Game of Thrones is probably the greatest story of Hubris in modern television history. It was an unprecedented and sprawling fantasy epic that was greenlit at the apex of the so-called “Golden Age of Television.” The show received glowing reviews early on but was doomed to several seasons of declining reviews and a final eighth season and series finale that were so bad as to seemingly taint the brand forever. So much so that there’s been practically zero news on the next book in the series that the show adapted and eventually overtook. Game of Thrones was dead and A Song of Ice and Fire was just a fond memory. Or so we thought. Because in this era of franchise IP management, that which is dead may never die and with strange aeons even Dark Fantasy epics that ended with a wet fart can get a second chance. And so we have The House of the Dragon, a new series set 172 years before A Game of Thrones, and telling the story of a feud within House Targaryen, the royal family of Westeros. So how is it? Well the first episode debuted last Sunday and it was certainly interesting. I’d like to talk about it.

So for starters, I know the final seasons of Game of Thrones put a lot of people off of this particular fantasy world. But there are a lot of reasons to be optimistic about this new endeavor. First and foremost, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, (dis)affectionately know as D&D are nowhere to be found. D&D were the original series showrunners and while they were initially hailed as champions of the modern fantasy genre, they quickly lost a lot of good will once they ran out of book material to draw on. By the end, they were outright reviled, with people dragging them through the proverbial streets for seemingly senseless quotes like “themes are for 8th grade book reports.” Luckily, the duo have seemingly dropped off the Earth after the absolute disaster that was GoT’s final season. Their planned Alt-History Civil War series never got off the ground at HBO and a planned Star Wars project was also scrapped. In their place we have a new team being spearheaded by Ryan Condal, a journeyman most famous for that Hercules movie starring The Rock and a sci-fi show called Colony. That’s fine though. I would rather a hardworking journeyman with genre experience over a rock star for a project like this. Plus, series creator George R.R Martin is taking a more active role on this one. See, the biggest hurdle that House of the Dragon (or Hot D as it is sometimes humorously abbreviated) is going to have to overcome is that it’s a prequel. This series is set to cover a hypothetically interesting part of the backstory that lead up to the events of Game of Thrones. But we know that whatever happens in this series, it eventually has to end in such a way that it sets up a predetermined status quo. That’s going to be a hard sell for any show. What’s more, the main cast of this series are the Targaryens aka everyone’s favorite silver haired incestuous weirdoes from the last show.

Hot D is based on the lore that Martin set down in deliberately vague detail in the book Fire and Blood all the way back in 2018. Long time readers might remember I reviewed that book and enjoyed it for what it was. I also pointed it out that it would basically act as a show bible for any potential spinoffs HBO might want to make. So consider this article my way of saying that I called this one a full five years ago. Anyway, Fire and Blood acted as a familial genealogy of the early reign of the Targaryens. In that review, I made the observation that the Targaryens are essentially the protagonists of a completely different fantasy series stuck into a much more grounded and realistic world in Westeros. In a way, House of the Dragon is backing me up on that one. From the very first shots of the pilot, set during a Grand Council of Westeros, we understand that the scale of this series is far outweighing that of the original series. The show is set during the height of the Targaryen family’s reign over Westeros and as a result everything is bigger and more grandiose. For example, there’s a jousting tournament in this episode and the set design is massive and opulent. It makes the tournament from the first season of GoT look like a country fair in comparison. This despite both tourneys being a product of the ruling family in their respective eras. The Golden Age of the Targaryens is bigger, and more grand than anything in Game of Thrones. And I feel like that might be a double edged sword.

The first season of Game of Thrones succeeded because it was a surprisingly cheap production and it had to rely on good actors and solid writing to win over critics and audiences. They cut out significant battle sequences from the books because they simply didn’t have the budget to film them. But now Hot D is trying to remind people of when Game of Thrones became the biggest thing on TV so it has a massive budget. This show isn’t the underdog that GoT was in its early days. Instead of striving to prove itself to audiences the way Game of Thrones did, it’s going to have to justify its existence to a much more cynical and aloof fandom. A fandom that has already been hurt once before. Plus it’s going to be competing with Amazon’s Lord of the Rings tv show, and Netflix with its near perfect recreation of Neil Gaiman’s fantasy epic, The Sandman (expect a review of that at some point). With that being the case, the expanded budget does give the showrunners a chance to lean more into the setting’s fantasy trappings, a choice that I appreciate. Hardcore book fans of the original series might remember being disappointed with how the show depicted the Iron Throne, the literal seat of power that rules Westeros. In the show it was just that, a pretty big iron chair made from swords. It was an instantly iconic piece of set design but it was a far cry from the monster of twisted iron that the books describe. The Iron Throne as seen in Hot D still isn’t quite as gargantuan as it appears in some concept art but it’s definitely bigger, and the choice to have the mass of twisted swords sprawl outwards into the throne room was a great design decision. Plus, they’re actually leaning into the fact that it’s a chair made out of sharp metal. The books constantly mention kings being cut by the throne as they sit in it, something that’s already happening in the pilot.

Our protagonist is Rhaenyra Targaryen, the only child of King Viserys. Rhaeynra is played by both Emma D’Arcy and Milly Alcock. While it didn’t show up in the pilot, one of the show’s conceits is going to be a framing device featuring multiple timelines, one set during the era of peace and one set during the build up to the show’s central conflict. I’m really excited to see how this plays out because I’m a sucker for narrative symmetry. Either way, in the pilot we see Rhaenyra played by Milly Alcock and the younger of the two actresses does a good job with the role. Rhaenyra is a sharp young woman who has been trained to play the role of dutiful daughter. And while she clearly chaffs at the limitations imposed on her as a woman in a patriarchal society, her familial loyalty has won out so far. I’m excited to see what D’Arcy brings to the role, especially since the episode ends with the character being thrust into a seemingly impossible situation. We also got to see Prince Daemon Targaryen, the current king’s brother and presumed heir to the throne, played by Matt Smith. Matt Smith is most famous for playing The Doctor in long-running British series Doctor Who. He plays Daemon as an almost flippantly cruel man who uses audacity to hide hidden depths and pains. That being said, the true star (for me at least) of this episode was Paddy Considine as King Viserys.

Considine is already a tremendously underrated actor in my estimation, and even from one episode you can tell his King Viserys Targaryen is going to be a memorable character. In the series lore, King Viserys inherited a kingdom that was rich, and prosperous having enjoyed more than sixty years of peace under his successor. Viserys never expected to be king, and was essentially elected to the position by the lords of Westeros. They chose him over his older half-sister in a moment of systemized misogyny that will have echoing effects. King Viserys seems as though he is hypothetically a good man. He’s amiable, conciliatory and very clearly cares about those close to him, including his family and his council of advisors. He’s a people pleaser. He finds joy in the more lavish parts of being a king like organizing tournaments. But we also see a man who is quietly haunted by his position. There’s a secene early on wherein his council of advisors demand that reprimand his brother. Prince Daemon has recently taken command of the City Watch and invoked night of ruthless “law enforcement.” We’re told that they’re still hauling away carts full of bodies and limbs as the council ruminates. And yet, all it takes is a single look from Considine to communicate his hesitancy and to inform us that Viserys is a man who has a hard time deciding between his office and his family. This indecision is further evidenced in the episode’s most gut-wrenching moment, wherein he authorizes the medieval doctors to perform a crude C-Section on his wife who is mid-labor. He’s asked point blank if he would rather save his wife or the baby (a potential male heir) and he chooses to protect his seat of power. As far as I know this bit of lore was not part of the original novel or GRRM’s lore, it was added to the show. And it’s a great choice. Viserys might be a fundamentally good man, but he is also a man defined by insecurities, and haunted by the idea of leaving something behind as a legacy. In short, he’s the type of man to be both metaphorically and literally cut to ribbons during his time on the throne and Considine articulates this beautifully in the pilot.

I have some criticisms of the first episode though. First is the big new lore bombshell the showrunners have dropped. At the episodes climax Viserys names Rhaenrys as his heir apparent, an unprecedented move in the history of the realm. But he also reveals to her in secret that the Targaryens have been laboring under a prophecy. Apparently their founder, Aegon the Conqueror, was driven to conquer Westeros by apocalyptic dreams of the future. Aegon’s dreams of an all consuming darkness and an endless winter drove him to become a king and ever since the Targaryens have ensured that one of their own remains on the throne. All the better to prevent the end of the world. I am of two minds about this. On one hand, I’m ambivalent towards prophecy in my fantasy, as a rule. Especially in this case, because the showrunners are clearly calling back/ahead to the abysmal 8th season wherein we saw the aforementioned long night. It lasted…about all of one episode. And when the good guys saved the world, a Targaryens wasn’t on the throne. So there’s definitely some lore discrepancies there. But in the long run, I feel like this could work, not as a typical prophecy but by adding depth to the Targaryens themselves. It adds a sort of martyr complex to this family. They didn’t set out to conquer the Seven Kingdoms. No, they clearly hoped to save it from some future doom. It recalls the Spanish Problem from the early days of North American colonization. (Aka “we have to colonize and exploit this land because if we don’t someone else might do that and be even crueler to the natives than we are”). And in the 172 years since, it’s easy to imagine the Targaryen kings thinking about that prophecy to justify…well, anything. If this prophecy is meant to be taken seriously, I’m not a fan. But if its meant to add texture to the already slightly unhinged rulers of Westeros? I’m all for that. Time will tell I suppose.

Here’s my biggest concern: all of the stuff I’ve written about is interesting, but it’s not exciting. Game of Thrones season 1 opened with a hell of a hook. Yeah, it was a weird fantasy story with knights and castles, but the core plot was a murder mystery. That type of storyline is immediately understandable to most television watchers. In contrast, Hot D is clearly aiming for more of a slow-burn character study and political drama thing. That approach might find its fans, but I don’t think Warner Discovery, especially in its new pathological cost-cutting mode will find a reason to spend that much money on a niche curiosity. Plus even if it’s only been 12 years, Game of Thrones debuted in a totally different television landscape. Back then, it felt like watching a tight rope act to see a big budget series attempt a retelling on an iconic fantasy series. Then halfway through the act it hits you that “holy shit, these carnies are professionals, they really know their stuff.” But in the years since, everything from Wheel of Time to Sword of Shanara have gotten adaptations. Fantasy, even Dark Fantasy, isn’t enough to draw in curious audiences anymore. What we saw on Sunday was basically one of the costume dramas my parents like with just enough swords and dragons to keep me interested. And that’s cool, don’t get me wrong, but it will be interesting to see if it has staying power.

I’m mildly optimistic though. Back when Game of Thrones was the biggest show on TV, there wasn’t any big secret to its success. The writers, actors and creators were just working really hard and had an obvious respect for the material. They lost that ethic somewhere along the way. Whether it was because they ran out of source material or were scrambling to write backwards from an ending that was already predetermined, they lost a lot of that energy. And from what I’ve seen that energy might be back. Speaking personally, I want to see what happens to these people. Heck, I already went through a quirky little haunted house and got my photo taken on the Iron Throne, so I guess I’m invested. It’d be a damn shame it this show turned out to be bad at this point. In the books, they always say that whenever a Targaryen is born, the gods flip a coin that will either land on greatness or madness. I feel like that’s a fitting metaphor. The first episode of House of the Dragon flipped the coin, and now we get to see what side it lands on.

Addendum: I meant for this to come out after just the first episode, but having now seen the second, i think it’s safe to say that my impressions remain largely the same. This show is angling to be a slow burn character study. If I write about this show again, maybe after the first season wraps, I’ll praise the efforts of the rest of the cast, particularly Steven Toussaint who is doing some really interesting stuff with his role as Corlys Valeryon.

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